The Bible and the Qur’an

Note: This post accompanies the material for an online course in Christian-Muslim relations offered by staff at the University of Edinburgh. You can now join this course for free here.

The title of ‘Abrahamic faiths’ – as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are sometimes called – would seem to suggest a level of unity centered around the figure of Abraham. Indeed, many religious leaders of all three faiths have issued invitations toward interfaith dialogue on the basis of a shared appreciation of Abraham’s hospitality. Abraham was known for receiving strangers with kindness, they reason. Could adherents to the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths do the same in the 21st-century?

As Learners noted, however, the story of Abraham is narrated differently in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and the Qur’an. One of the important differences that Learners discussed at length was as fundamental as the identity of Abraham’s sacrifice. Which son did God ask Abraham to sacrifice? Was it Ishmael, born to Hagar, or was it Isaac, his son by Sarah? If this seemed confusing in your reading of the texts side-by-side, this is natural. In fact, it is an important point of difference among the faiths to this day. Muslims have generally celebrated Ishmael as the son being referenced in Abraham’s call to sacrifice, and Ishmael and his mother Hagar maintain in important role in Islam’s annual pilgrimage – the Hajj – to this day. Meanwhile, Jews and Christians continue to see Isaac in this story, and Sarah is the more significant mother figure.

In fact, many have gone as far to say that any conflict between Christianity and Islam over the centuries began with this conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, or even between Hagar and Sarah. In this reading, while Abraham is a figure suggesting peace and unity among the world’s largest religions, his family devolves into conflict rather quickly!

In their final reflections, however, learners went beyond the confusion to consider more deeply what the Biblical and Qur’anic texts are trying to teach their followers. In both texts, Learners, noticed, Abraham becomes an important starting point, his faith in the One God is celebrated, and ritual remembrances of these important events are established. Differences emerge, however, in the relationship between obedience to commandments and faith in God, and especially the meaning of sacrifice. Who, for example, was offering the sacrifice – Abraham or his son?

You may want to consider these questions to further your learning:

  1. What do you think about the conflict between Ishmael/Hagar vs Isaac/Sarah? Does it signify something important about any potential for tension and coexistence among Christians and Muslims?
  2. Consider the differing roles of Sarah and Hagar from a female perspective. Do you see any differences in how they are portrayed or what that might mean for a female-oriented reading of these texts?
  3. As noted above, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son is treated in slightly different ways between Christian and Islamic scripture. How would you expect these differences to affect their understanding of the life of Jesus?